15 Tips to Successfully Sight Read

December 17, 2012, 4:30 PM · One of the least anticipated elements of an audition is the dreaded task of sight reading. As perfectly as you may have prepared your performance pieces and your scales, all of a sudden a completely foreign piece of music is placed in front of you and—what?—you’re supposed to play this stuff cold?

Horribly fumbling through a passage of music for a panel of judges is not only scary, but potentially embarrassing—especially after so much preparation for an otherwise impressive audition.

But it doesn’t have to go badly, and the prospect of sight reading doesn’t have to fill you with absolute dread. The stage fright that sets in when that piece is placed in front of you can be completely avoided if you approach the task with confidence and a little know-how.



Here are 15 tips to successfully sight read. You can do it!

  1. Practice sight reading. Pull out some music you’ve never played before each time you practice, especially in the weeks before an audition. Practice sight reading using the tips below as if you were actually in an audition setting, even in front of family or friends. If you experience stage fright or get anxiety when you audition or play for others, be sure to practice your audition (including sight reading) in front of a “mock” panel of judges.

  2. Take a BRIEF moment to look over the entire passage. Glance over the whole piece to familiarize yourself with any dynamic markings, tempo changes, key changes, articulation markings, and the like. Don’t take too long doing this; you don’t want to keep the judges waiting. Try to look over the following details in less than 60 seconds.

  3. Look at the key signature. First things first. Take note of any sharps or flats. Also glance over the piece and take note of any accidentals.

  4. Identify measures with lots of notes. Look for clusters of notes (or lots of black). These are spots that will most likely be the trickiest.

  5. Identify measures with complex rhythms. Note dotted rhythms or clusters of sixteenth and eight notes. You will base your tempo on how quickly you think you can play the tricky passages.

  6. Look at the tempo marking. If a passage is marked andante, largo, lento, or moderato, do NOT play it faster than it should be. Playing a piece quickly with the intention to show off will not impress the judges. In fact, you’re more likely to trip over challenging passages if you start playing too fast.

  7. Start playing. Again, don’t keep the judges waiting too long. Go for it!

  8. Take your time. Concerning the tempo, it is perfectly okay when sight reading to play the passage a little slower than you might in a real performance.

  9. Keep a steady tempo. Don’t speed up or slow down. One of the most important things you can do is play the passage at a steady, consistent speed. This is something the judges are specifically looking for. Varying your tempo will give the judges the impression that you don’t have a solid sense of rhythm.

  10. Read ahead. Play one measure as you’re look ahead the the next measure(s). “An experiment on sight reading using an eye tracker indicates that highly skilled musicians tend to look ahead further in the music, storing and processing the notes until they are played; this is referred to as the eye–hand span.” [1]

  11. Don’t sweat the bowings. Start with a down bow (unless otherwise marked) and take it as it comes.

  12. Don’t stop or repeat measures if you mess up. This is also something the judges look for specifically as you can’t stop and repeat measure in a real performance, especially with an accompanist or when playing in an orchestra. Forge ahead!

  13. Don’t apologize or say, "Oops!" In fact, don’t say anything. Not even a disclaimer before you begin, like, “Oh, wow. Okay. This is probably going to sound really bad, but here goes!”

  14. Stop playing when instructed. Always stop immediately when the judges say so. Usually they stop you to stay on schedule or because they’ve gotten a good impression of your playing abilities based on what you’ve already done.

  15. And lastly, pat yourself on the back. It’s over! You did it! It’s as simple as that.


[1] Wikipedia, “Sight reading,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sight_reading#Sight-reading


December 18, 2012 at 01:55 PM · Very nice summary. To me the 10K question is how does one develop the reading-ahead (or eye–hand span) skill? It does improve with practice and use but surely there are methods to develop it faster. Do you know of any?

December 18, 2012 at 02:59 PM · I guess one way is to take a book of studies like Wohlfahrt or Kayser and force yourself never to have a gap at the end of a line. Then you know you are reading ahead at least a little.

December 18, 2012 at 07:01 PM · I once was told by a teacher that doing a lot of scales so you know the fingerboard really well does the trick. There's some truth to that.

December 18, 2012 at 07:13 PM · Elise- I'm with ya on that one! As a fellow amateur kammermusiker I'm sure you've had similar experiences to me- reading-through pieces with people and finding that while all this wonderful technique work I've been doing is just lovely, it's worth absolutely nothing if I'm not able take in the music on the page in a timely way. I've said this countless times in various threads here - it's not just sight-reading, it's music-reading in general and being able to read ahead is a hugely valuable tool for this thing we do. For this reason I've been trying to develop my ability to read ahead & I've been picking the brains of my friends who are really good readers. Reading ahead seems to be a common theme. Now how to develop it? I'd love to hear ideas on this, but I figure just start with making the conscious effort to have your eyes ahead of where you're playing no matter what. I've heard of a teacher blocking the music so that the student can't see the measure they're currently playing.

December 18, 2012 at 08:02 PM · Reading ahead is the second most important music reading skill--perhaps even the first! I've blocked off students' music before, but honestly, the only way to develop reading ahead is to practice doing it. It's one of those skills that comes suddenly. I had a student show up to her lesson elated that she read ahead during orchestra that day. From then on, she was a much more fluent reader.

One thing that helps with sight reading is being able to recognize pitch and rhythm patterns in the music. If you've developed your ear, it's easy to hear the notes in your head, and then transfer it to the instrument. This, of course, assumes you have A) a mastery of said instrument, B) a mastery of ear training and C) fluency in what notation means. If you have all of the above, the steps listed in this article will make you a top sight reader. It all takes practice, but then, so did learning to read English, or type or any number of skills we no longer have to think about.

December 19, 2012 at 09:12 PM · I was lucky to have a parent take a blank index card and cover the measure I was playing, always covering a measure ahead. I wonder if there's a way to do that automatically now?

December 20, 2012 at 09:23 PM · These are great comments. It seems that reading music and reading prose are so similar. Maybe developing speed reading skills may help; i.e. the ability to absorb information by looking at an entire phrase, sentence, or line rather than by sounding out individual phonetic sounds or words. In music terms, this would mean looking at a musical figure or phrase and knowing what it should sound like rather than by looking at each individual note and piecing the notes together.

I am also a firm believer in the power of sight singing, or being able to know what the music sounds like by simply looking at it. I agree that skill will definitely help sight reading more than anything.

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